Each year, nearly all 9,000 students in the Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) use around three hours of class time to take the Interim Comprehensive Assessments (ICA). For years teachers and students have criticized the quality of questions, how irrelevant the results are, and why seniors are required to take the test.
In an email to District students and parents, Diana Wilmot, Director of Program Evaluation & Research, explained, “Each year, with the ICA, we strive to better understand how SUHSD students are progressing on state content standards and readiness for college and career.”
While standardized tests like this are commonplace, teachers interviewed find the administration process frustrating. English teacher Kat Keigher, who has administered the test since its inception six years ago, explained that, “Every year, we have to adjust because we never know when the testing window is going to be. Most teachers I know are very frustrated that we have to sacrifice an entire block period for the assessment. In general, I’m not too precious about my schedule. But I would much rather not have to.”
This year teachers were given particularly late notice. Keigher said, “We were first told of the dates on October 18th, and they were incorrect. On the next day, our department chair corrected that—that is less than two weeks’ notice, which is not professional.”
Keigher explained, “The tests are not written by our District officials. They are only compiled or selected by them.” The testing is meant to measure progress and help students prepare for state testing, which takes place in the spring of students’ junior year. Each question on the test is tied to at least one California State Standard, and the ICA aims to assess most if not all of those standards.
It is also worth mentioning that the ICA questions are often at a more basic level—to the point of not being informative for high-level math and English students. After hearing about an example question on last year’s math ICA test, Steven Kryger, a math teacher, said, “I mean, if those are the really the type of questions, if it’s at that level, then are we really learning anything about a high math-level student?” He continued, saying, “I certainly question if it’s worth the time. I think when we see our students on a day-to-day basis, we can certainly see where they struggle, or if it’s trouble with a previous topic.”
In addition, the tests are not double-checked by English or math teachers, and teachers say they are often poorly-phrased or incorrect. Keigher said, “The questions are not particularly well written. First and foremost, my issue is the canned language that they use.” She said, “Some of the questions are problematic, and they indicate bias. One question from a past test included the word ‘womanish,’ which students would have to infer means someone who ‘worries a lot.’ I found that concerning: that in order to actually answer the question correctly, that’s the mental connection that students would need to make.” Keigher clarified that this particular question is no longer used but not as a result of teacher complaints.
Multiple teachers have offered to help fix the test, Keigher added. She said, “I have been giving the District feedback on this assessment since its inception. To a certain degree, they have been open to hearing it. But they have never been open to paying us to fix it. They are very ready to ask for our feedback or advice or suggestions, but won’t pay us to actually make a better test. As far as I know, the person compiling the test for the English assessment is not credentialed in English—that’s a problem.”
For years the same English exam was used for multiple grades but has since been changed. However, the math test contains the exact same questions each year. For many high-level math students, this method of testing does little to measure progress, only check for learning regression.
In meetings with teachers, District staff emphasize the importance of junior year scores. Regardless, underclassmen take the test to prepare them for their junior year. Keigher explained that the test is “only as helpful for students as individual teachers make it. If they frame it in the way that the District presents it to us, as assessing your skills, I don’t find it particularly helpful.”
Despite the question of how useful the test is, its goal is the data—which teachers often don’t receive until spring, if at all. Kryger said, “As far as I know, none of us have ever used it. None of us have ever seen these results. There’s never been a plan put forth of how to address any holes or weaknesses that students have, based on what I’m aware of.”
Keigher also expressed frustration, mentioning that even when teachers receive the results of their students, usually in January, it’s often too far from the test date for it to be helpful for them. Keigher said, “by that point. I don’t know how relevant it is.”
Keigher teaches juniors exclusively, and so the test does matter for her students. “I frame it for students as a way to gain exposure to the types of questions and content that they’re likely to encounter in March when they take the SBAC or the CAASPP [California state tests],” Keigher said.
Each year, teachers question why seniors are forced to take it. It’s unclear if the District does anything with that data, and seniors don’t need to prepare to take the test in the future, since they already took the California state tests.
The tests are administered in class, which takes away valuable teaching time and adds to the testing fatigue of both students and teachers.
Kryger explained that “There’s time invested into setting it up and looking at your schedule and carving out time—it’s just one more thing that we’ve got to take into account.”